Past Treasure of the Month – December 2013

The Legacy of Emma Lee
Emma LeeChildren’s Librarian Emma Lee worked at the Rosenberg Library for over thirty years
(courtesy of the Rosenberg Library).

June 22, 1904 – A large crowd eagerly gathered outside the massive stone building on 23rd and Sealy on Galveston Island. Over the last decade residents patiently waited as committees were formed, land was purchased, architects designed, and masons built. But this day the citizens of Galveston would, for the first time, see their brand new state-of-the-art free public library. The namesake and benefactor of the new building, Henry Rosenberg had an affinity for children, so the board of directors made sure that kids would have a special place at the library. One little girl in attendance, Emma Lee, would eventually play a very influential role in this special place. The daughter of a local medical doctor, young Emma was passionate about learning. It must have been nice for her to be greeted by wonderfully made benches (with scenes from fairly tales carved into their sides), and furniture that was just the right size for her to sit on. More importantly, there were lots and lots of great books meant for kids like her that she could take home and read.

Patsy dollThis Effanbee doll from the 1930s was donated by
Emma Lee, and was one of the items on
display as the December Treasure of the Month.

It is something that many of us take for granted today, but our educational system has not always focused on instilling the love of reading in children. In fact, modern ideas of what a ‘good’ childhood (sheltered from the worries of adults, gaining an education, playing games, using ones’ imagination and so on) ought to be were products of late 19th century reformers. Their efforts eventually gave way to a focus on education (especially reading) for kids. This in turn gave rise to a new literary genre: children’s literature. So during the 1904 holiday season the Library exhibited a collection of children’s books that would make good Christmas presents. Perhaps Emma and her sister Cora received a present from that exhibit that Christmas, but we don’t know for certain.

Emma grew up, graduated from Ball High and went on to Columbia University where she enrolled as a journalism student. However, she soon changed her focus to library science. After graduating she obtained a job in Houston, and in 1924 she was hired as the head of the Children’s Department at the Rosenberg Library. Her predecessor, Evelyn Sickels, had established the children’s department as a focal point of the Rosenberg Library, which Emma Lee continued over the next thirty plus years.

Lee was famous for her story time. Sometimes she would use dolls as visual aids to teach kids about different cultures or nationalities. Her story time was so popular that she took it to the airwaves on a weekly radio show in the 1940s. Emma Lee also created other outlets for children’s activities and held programs on coin and stamp collecting. She set up numerous historic exhibits for kids and gave lectures on topics ranging from the history of books to the contributions of Southern writers to children’s literature.

Bench detailCarved details on the original wooden benches
in the Children’s Department currently on
the Second Floor in the Grand Hallway.

Emma Lee had a very creative mind. She wrote a play for her puppets called “At the Sign of the Bible and the Sun,” published numerous articles in library journals, and collected art. She extended her energies throughout the community serving as the President of the YWCA, the treasurer of the Texas Library Association and was recognized as one of fifteen pioneers in the library field by the Texas Library Association in the 1950s. She and her sister Cora lived together at 1126 47th Street and frequently hosted social events. They also traveled throughout Europe together, often incorporating things they had acquired in their travels into library events.

When Emma Lee retired from her position at the Rosenberg Library in the late 1950s, the Daily News wrote a lovely piece commemorating thirty-five years of service. When she passed away in 1975 the entire city mourned the loss, and the Friends of Rosenberg Library had memorial plaques placed on those original children’s benches. But the most enduring legacy of Emma Lee was the passion for reading she inspired in many generations of Galvestonians. To this day Library staff members hear stories of Miss Lee’s famous patience, her encouraging words and her unwavering support of young readers. Our current children’s librarians strive to continue the legacy set forth by Emma Lee.

Memorial plaqueThis memorial plaque was placed on the original Oak
Benches in Rosenberg Library after Emma Lee passed away.